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22nd November 2021

Manchester’s feminist history

We outline the key players and organisations in the history of feminism that originated in here Manchester!
Manchester’s feminist history
Photo: Annie Dabb @ The Mancunion

The recent rise in people talking about spiking and sexual assault can be draining on an optimist’s view of feminist progression – it is difficult to see a hopeful future when the present is so distressing. However, reflecting on and acknowledging what women did in the past for the same movement we are a part of now, can inspire some hope or at least a feeling of pride. It’s especially important to be proud of our progressive heritage here in Manchester, so here are some of the most influential feminists from the city. 

Feminism has been a part of Manchester’s social culture from as early as 1819, when Mary Fildes formed the Manchester Female Reform Group which promoted birth control. Fildes wrote and distributed books on the subject, however was later accused of distributing porn by the local press. Before it was even fathomable to consider women’s suffrage, Fildes aided in the battle for men’s suffrage – fighting one cause in order to gain the platform from which to fight for women.

One of the most widely recognised Mancunian feminists was Emmeline Pankhurst, an iconic figurehead of the suffragettes and avid activist throughout her life. Pankhurst is memorialised in St. Peters Square – the first female statue in the city centre that didn’t depict a woman as a romanticised muse catered towards the male gaze since the erection of Queen Victoria’s statue in Piccadilly Gardens. Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. The WSPU shocked the world with some of the first feminist protests of their kind, such as hunger strikes, rallies, arson and even political martyrdom in the case of Emily Wilding Davison.

By 1887, Lydia Becker had begun campaigning for women’s right to vote, through her role as the president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society. She published several articles about women’s rights and eventually managed to get a bill promoting votes for women into Parliament – which was unfortunately outvoted by the male majority. Interestingly, Becker often clashed with Pankhurst as she never married, and Pankhurst believed that only married women should be able to vote.

The history of the suffragette movement and Manchester’s involvement in it is documented a fair amount, with it being a common subject in history lessons or in media such as film and television. However, some women are not spoken about enough. For example, a notable activist is Olive Morris who studied at the University of Manchester from 1975 to 1978. Morris began demanding a voice for the voiceless as a teenager, and then, despite only being in her early twenties, became an integral advocate for the Manchester Black Women’s Co-operative and the Black Women’s Mutual Aid Group. She also helped to establish a supplementary school for black children to try and better education provisions in the area, all before the age of 27.

Angela Cooper and Luchia Fitzgerald were more trailblazers in Manchester’s history who are rarely mentioned.  Together, they ran the Manchester Women’s Liberation Centre for 5 years in the 1970s, providing pregnancy testing and helplines, and then proceeded to open Manchester’s first women’s refuge, ‘Women’s Aid’.  In the 1980s they gathered 20,000 to march through Manchester in protest of Margaret Thatcher’s legislation against schools teaching about same sex relationships, known as Section 28.

Another notable feminist advocate was Julia Grant, an activist for transgender rights. She allowed the BBC to follow her transition and the documentary became the first of its kind. She owned Hollywood Showbar on Canal Street, and regularly vocalised her disapproval of the gentrification and overdevelopment of the Gay Village.

At ground level, feminism is becoming ever more present on social media in the modern age. For young people, particularly students, it is getting easier and easier to get educated and involved. A relevant example of this is of course the Manchester’s Feminist network, and the University’s very own Feminist Collective.

I spoke to Jess Baxter from the UoM Feminist Collective about how feminism in Manchester has developed to where it is today. She said that the spikings have been a particular setback for feminism, but points out that although “feminists as activists have had so many setbacks you cannot count them”, it “doesn’t mean we can’t fight back”. Baxter cites the ever-inspiring Pankhurst sisters as some of her favourite feminist icons along with Victoria Wood, another Mancunian woman who has excelled in comedy, a male dominated field.

If you would like to start getting involved in feminist activity in your area, Syd King is running a discussion for the Feminist Collective on ableism in the media, as part of Disability History Month on the 23rd November via Google Meet – find out more here. There is also the Pankhurst Centre in Emmeline Pankhurst’s old house that is a museum that tells the story of the Pankhursts and other influential women’s lives, which is free to visit.

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